Back to school time is upon us. Parents are already exhausted rousing sleepy kids, ensuring lunches are packed, urging them out the door or ferrying them between activities. It’s overwhelming just thinking about it.
It’s worse for parents who juggle multiple roles. Some may be going to school part time themselves or adding eldercare to their list of To Do’s , along with working, child rearing and trying to look after themselves.
How do people manage all this and stay sane?
A recent study in the Journal of Applied Psychology sheds light on this perennial puzzle. Tracy Hect at Montreal’s Concordia University and Julia McCarthy at the University of Toronto conducted two studies of people involved in three roles (worker, student and family member). They discovered that one’s personality and coping style have a lot to do with how well one deals with the demands of multiple roles.
They observed three styles of coping:
1. Problem Solvers
Workers in this category tended to tackle managing multiple roles head on. They planned, organized and actively created ways to handle it all. The downside was that they had trouble recognizing that it is impossible to sustain the handling of multiple roles in the long term. They need to temper their planning tendencies with a reality check. We all have finite resources and putting energy into one role depletes energy left for the others.
Hence, planning is essential to making a life of multiple roles work, but recognizing that things will slip through the cracks and exhaustion will set in is key. Standards may have to change and people will have to cut themselves some slack.
These folks tend to use venting, chatting, complaining and emotional expression as a means to relieve stress and gain support when juggling many roles. Talking to family and friends can provide new ideas on how to handle the strain as well as result in offers of support. Discussing one’s exhaustion, feelings of frustration and sense of helplessness can be useful. However, the researchers note that talking too much about the stress can reduce time needed to deal with the demands. Time spent working on the school project or work tasks can be a better use of resources than commiserating with someone. Procrastinating by worrying about one’s ability to cope will not help a person handle the demands. A balance between talking with supportive people and getting on with the job needs to be struck for emotional expression to be helpful in multiple role situations.
This person tends to reduce stress by avoiding it. While they take on multiple roles, they may develop bad habits to deal with the strain. This can include excessive sleeping and using drugs or alcohol to relax or escape the demands being placed on them. Neither of these solutions is effective and leads to problems separate from juggling roles. However, avoiding chronic stress using healthy diversions can help survive multiple role strain. For example, reading a book for pleasure or giving oneself a break by watching a favourite TV program can be rejuvenating in small doses. The researchers note that it is impossible to wear multiple hats over the long term, so getting mini-breaks is important.
There are a few tricks people can use to balance multiple roles, including:
- Identify areas where you can double up. For example, if you have gone back to college or university, you might be able to work on a project for your boss that gets you credit in school. Or, if a neighbour drives her child to soccer, arrange carpooling. If you are looking after an elderly parent, bring the kids along for a visit or ask older children to take dinner preparation on for a night while you care for a parent.
- Talk to employers about what flexibility could be built into your job for the time being. Some have programs that pay tuition, give flex time opportunities for workers caring for children and elders.
- Be willing to avoid the stress by taking some time out, even if it’s just for a short time.
- Lower your standards to be willing to perform some roles at a reduced level. The house can get dirty, certain tasks can be delayed and tasks can be delegated.
- Develop the attitude that juggling multiple roles is a challenge rather than a pain. Take on the challenge as a personal goal rather than see it as one of strain and potential failure.
- Do a reality check: Recognize that there is no such thing as balancing multiple roles and achieving life satisfaction through this means. It’s a myth.
So , if you go through life wearing a bunch of different hats, think about taking them on in a limited way. Eventually, reducing the number of roles you play will simplify your life and help you regain a sense of well -being. Handling multiple roles is a short-term strategy to fulfill a personal goal (go back to school) or meet a family obligation.
Just don’t make it a way of life.